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On Hardy and Hardiness: Droughts and Genetic Engineering

22.aug.02, Justin Kastner, AgNet Listserve Commentary from the Food Safety Network

British novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is reputed for his descriptions of the changes that rural England experienced during the nineteenth century. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Wessex—a region in southwest England—is the setting of a story subject to the vicissitudes of uncertain harvests.

While Hardy’s stories are fictitious, bad weather and poor yields were real problems for nineteenth-century Britain. Substantial harvests were reaped in 1842, ’43, and ’44, but the poor yield in 1845 reminded British farmers and consumers of the elusiveness of plenty. In that year, Britain’s food supply was beleaguered by bad weather, poor harvests, and, in Ireland, the beginnings of a potato famine. For outspoken political economists and activists, the woes of 1845 certified that Britain’s food security was a precarious one. These thought leaders had previously argued that grain imports were needed to ensure a cheap, plentiful food supply for working-class Britain—a nation that was increasingly industrial and urban. The bad harvest of 1845 convinced politicians of the validity of such economic arguments; in 1846, Britain repealed the Corn Laws, a system of tariffs on grain imports.[1]

While the repeal of the Corn Laws helped England and Ireland cope with imminent starvation, farmers expressed worry that the increased competition would ruin them.[2] Indeed, increasing supplies of imported grain forced many out of business and those capable of adaptation would eventually turn to livestock farming, where Britain’s meat-eating appetite offered better prices.[3] Literary scholars note that Hardy himself lamented many of the effects of Corn Law repeal, in particular mechanization and the ever-increasing distance between labourers and the land.[4]

Hardy’s novels are still read today by those of us enchanted by pastoral scenes of nineteenth-century England. Hardy’s writings resonate with our yearnings for the “simple life” of yesteryear. Yet it is noteworthy, as scholar Merryn Williams quotes him, that Hardy admitted, “it is too much to expect [farmers] to remain stagnant and old-fashioned for the pleasure of romantic spectators.”[5]

Unfortunately, stagnation and old-fashionedness is still being forced on farmers. Millions of people in southern Africa are suffering from starvation.[6] Farmers and consumers in the region could benefit from genetically engineered crops that are drought- and insect-resistant, yet the dictates of European policy have forced many of these countries to refuse them. Some countries have actually shunned North American food aid on the basis of GM concerns.[7] Equally lamentable has been resistance in North America to new pest-resistant varieties of potatoes that could help alleviate the fish kills cause by pesticide run-off on Prince Edward Island.

In his preface to The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy wrote that there was a “present indifference of the public to harvest weather.” This indifference continues; most of our preoccupations with the weather begin and end with what clothing we will wear today. Farmers—that ever-decreasing group of people responsible for our very food supply—have an altogether different reason for watching the weather. And they should be allowed the freedom to choose from agricultural technologies that help them hedge against nature’s risks.

Author's note: the map of Wessex was reproduced courtesy of The Thomas Hardy Association.

[1] Christopher Harvie, "Revolution and the Rule of Law (1789-1851)," in The Oxford History of Britain, ed. Kenneth O. Morgan (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 510.

[2] Merryn Williams, A Preface to Hardy, 2nd ed. (New York: Longman Publishing, 1993), 49.

[3] Richard Perren, Agriculture in Depression, 1870-1940, ed. Michael Sanderson for the Economic History Society, New Studies in Economic and Social History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 11.

[4] Williams, A Preface to Hardy, 50-51.

[5] Ibid., 51.

[6] "Zambia Fears Genetically Modified Food Aid [Agnet Listserve]," Agence France Presse English, 12 August 2002.

[7] Ronald Bailey, "Gm Trade War [Agnet Listserve]," National Post, 9 August 2002.

Justin Kastner is a doctoral student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.